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Summer Vocation: In Texas and around the globe, faculty, staff and students spend summer making an impact

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On a university campus, it’s easy to imagine that summertime will be, as the song lyrics say, a time when the living is easy. But each year the students, professors and staff at The University of Texas at Austin prove that our three warmest months aren’t just about kicking back and relaxing.

Summer is also about serving others, traveling abroad, learning new things, bringing young people to campus, putting on shows, and in one case, competing for prize money on national television. As summer winds to a close, take a look at a sampling of the many, many exciting projects, journeys and learning experiences that marked the summer of 2007 for Longhorns young and old.

Telescopes in the Jungle

When Dr. Cesar Ocampo was five years old, he watched the televised night launch of the Apollo 17 with his parents, Colombian immigrants who had come to the U.S. just three years earlier with their children. Ocampo describes the moment as his spark.

Dr. Cesar Ocampo views the sun with a specialized solar telescope in a school yard in Quibdo. At left are engineering students and twin brothers, Heicer and Heyler Ledezma, who attend school in Bogota and helped organize the trip to Quibdo, their home city
Dr. Cesar Ocampo views the sun with a specialized solar telescope in a school yard in Quibdo. At left are engineering students and twin brothers, Heicer and Heyler Ledezma, who attend school in Bogota and helped organize the trip to Quibdo, their home city.

That spark led Ocampo to become an aerospace engineer. Today he helps design space missions and is an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering. This summer he visited rural El Choco, a Colombian state in the tropical rain forest, hoping to create that same spark in children of the region.

“It’s a trip I’ve always wanted to do,” Ocampo says, “in part because it truly exemplifies what outreach is about, and because it is a region few dare to visit because of its remoteness and security issues.”

Ocampo visited elementary schools and small housing communities in El Choco, which lies in western Colombia, bordering the Pacific Ocean. The area has little infrastructure, and remote areas are accessible only by river. Many of the inhabitants are Afro-Colombian, and most are very poor, living on less than $2 a day. Violence is also a day-to-day reality for children in El Choco. Ocampo met kids whose siblings had been murdered by illegally armed groups.

He heard their stories, and he shared with them the secrets of the solar system, getting creative to run aircraft and spacecraft simulators in schools with no electricity. Students delighted in viewing the sun through a solar telescope, and Ocampo forged relationships that will bring him back to the region in the future.

One of those relationships is with Father Cesar Augusto Perea, a local priest and human rights leader. The religious man and the practical scientist found common ground.

“We are committed to working together to bring hope to the children of El Choco,” Ocampo says, “to help them get a good education, have access to health care and live a life with dignity.”

Kid-play with the Bard

Professor Jim (“Doc”) Ayres has long believed that the way to experience the plays of Shakespeare is through performance. That belief is at the core of Shakespeare at Winedale, the program he founded in 1970 that brings unique performances to a renovated barn near Round Top, Texas.

Payton Hatcher, Charles Grubb and Tara McCullough in Camp Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing'
Payton Hatcher, Charles Grubb and Tara McCullough in Camp Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Shakespeare at Winedale focuses on university students who engage in full-immersion in Shakespeare for the summer. But once in awhile, Ayres would find himself casting local children for parts in the play. Soon he had kids clamoring for their time on stage.

“What I’ve discovered since the inception of Shakespeare at Winedale is that everyone wants to play,” says Ayres, “and Shakespeare is the playing field.”

In 2001 Camp Shakespeare was formed to introduce kids age 10 to 16 to the Bard. Today it’s a two-week residential camp where kids stay in cabins in Round Top, explore the language and characters of a play and spend evenings learning lines, dances or how to choreograph battle scenes in a grassy green bordered by Texas live oaks.

Each of the two sessions culminates in performances of full plays in Winedale’s famous barn.

Ayres says the kids come to Shakespeare with their ability to play intact.

“Kids know how to play, to play together and to have fun,” he says. “That makes it very easy for them. You might be interested to hear that many write me about how superior the kids are to the university class in understanding, verbal energy, invention and interpretation.”

Fourteen-year-old Santi Dietche of Austin has attended the camp for four years and says kids feel at home there while at the same time learning something new every day. This year he played Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, in the camp’s performance of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Digging into his character’s constant plotting proved a thrill.

“You go through the play detail by detail,” Dietche says, “because you have to get each pronunciation and movement on the stage correct. You learn things you’d never think to learn about, like how to pronounce the word ‘nothing’ in a different way. You get to experience what you think you only get to do as an adult.”

And adults may soon find themselves doing more than sitting in the audience. While Camp Shakespeare continues to grow—this year’s applicants came from New York, Missouri, Tennessee, Massachusetts and elsewhere beyond and within Texas—Ayres is turning his attention to the other end of the playing field. His next endeavor is to expand the Winedale offerings to the “older than average” crowd.

(Not So) Lost on Lizard Island

Sure, communal living on a distant island might bring to mind a certain hit television show. But the 15 students who stayed on Lizard Island this summer were satisfied to find their intrigue in the incredible coral reefs they snorkeled through each day.

Elise Rasmussen, Tony Keffler and Jean Kwon snorkeling in the channel to Lizard Island Lagoon, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Elise Rasmussen, Tony Keffler and Jean Kwon snorkeling in the channel to Lizard Island Lagoon, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

For three summers Dr. Mary Poteet, research fellow and lecturer in integrative biology, has led a group of 15 students to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to study coral reef ecosystems and conduct field-based research. After a week in Sydney, students spend three weeks at the Lizard Island Research Station. They cook, eat, study, research and play together, and Poteet admits there are many sad faces when it’s time to leave.

“At dinner, all of us sit around an open-air dining table as the sun sets and flying foxes start to forage,” she says. “It’s an energized environment that leads to some great conversations and debates.”

Days are spent outside, boating and snorkeling in one of the many reefs surrounding Lizard Island. Students interact with researchers from around the globe and they explore the natural history and biodiversity of the area while learning the field methods employed in ecological research.

The class draws students from across the university, with majors ranging from business to philosophy, engineering to geological sciences. Their experience with travel varies, too.

“Australia was definitely the farthest and most exotic place that I had ever been,” says Elise Rasmussen, who had just finished her first year as a student in the College of Natural Sciences when she took the class.

“The most interesting thing was the level of diversity in the ocean communities,” Rasmussen says. “I could float in the same place in the water, look around, and still never see every living organism within my vicinity.”

She also says that the trip taught her just how involved scientific research is, from the length of time it takes to conduct it to how variables are always interacting, making definite answers elusive. This kind of understanding is exactly what Poteet is aiming for.

She’s focused her teaching career on helping students understand research and science methods.

“My goal is to give students a hands-on appreciation for evidence-based inquiry in a stimulating and exciting environment,” she says.

Lizard Island offers her just that opportunity.

“It’s so gratifying to see the students look at the reef for the first time,” she says. “They get so excited when they see the incredible diversity and abundance of colorful fishes and coral. It’s almost overwhelming.”

Preparing a New Generation of Leaders

Inman Scholars at a community event at George Washington Carver Community Center
Inman Scholars at a community event at George Washington Carver Community Center. Left to right are Alessandra Carrasco, UT Austin communication major; Jessica Jimenez, UT Austin nursing major; Michael Cogan, Texas A&M–Corpus Christi economics major; Claudia Ordaz, UT El Paso government major and Rakhee Kewada, Southwestern State University political science major.

After two years at Trinity University, Gordon Abner knew he wanted to work in the field of public service, but he didn’t know how to make it happen. After spending six weeks at the LBJ School this summer, he’s discovered the possibilities are much broader than he’d imagined.

Abner was one of 15 students from colleges and universities across the state who participated in the Inman Scholars program. Created in 2006 by Admiral Bobby Inman, the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy and the founder of the Inman Foundation, the program aims to bring a diverse group of students to campus to explore careers in public service and prepare for graduate work in public policy.

“In his work at the LBJ School, Admiral Inman is very aware of the public policy landscape and how things are evolving,” says Megan Murphy, coordinator of the program. “It became obvious to him that we were not preparing enough minority students for the field of public policy to work on policy issues critical to the lives of minorities.”

Students live on campus and take classes in global issues and quantitative skills. The classroom is only part of the experience, however. As important, they meet with professionals working in policy and receive leadership training and career mentoring from LBJ students and alumni.

They also get to know their fellow scholars, students from various backgrounds who share their interests and aspirations. Together, they discover the many directions they can take in the field of public affairs.

“Everyone brought a different perspective,” Abner says. “And the program showed us that we can make a career in public policy. Before the program it seemed hard to achieve. Now I know I could succeed in it.”

Future Nurses Hit Mexico

The School of Nursing at The University of Texas at Austin was the first in the country to require its students to take a Spanish course so they can better care for a changing population. Today nursing students have several ways to take that course, but only one of them lands them in Guadalajara in the middle of the summer, visiting clinics in Mexican hospitals and learning not just a language, but a culture.

Nursing students join students from the University of Guadalajara in a tour of the city's Hospital Civil
Nursing students join students from the University of Guadalajara in a tour of the city’s Hospital Civil.

Spanish for Health Care professionals is a six-week course run in conjunction with the University of Guadalajara. Dr. Alexandra Garcia, assistant professor in the School of Nursing who has run the program for the past two years, says the experience of studying in Mexico can be transformative for students.

“Some of the students had never been outside their local culture,” she says. “For them to be immersed in another place really opens their eyes to how people live in the rest of the world, and how there are a lot of people living that way.”

Students study Spanish in a classroom setting every day, then practice what they learn by living with host families and navigating the city. They also spend time in real clinical situations.

“As far as health care goes, Mexico’s got an interesting mix of old and archaic and super-modern and competent,” Garcia says.

One of the hospitals students visit is more than 200 years old, and patients lie in wards without air conditioning, with open, screenless windows and no curtains separating one bed from the next. Yet the same hospital has an eye surgery unit that’s considered the best in the region.

It isn’t all work and no play—students get to hit the beach and take trips to some of Mexico’s most beautiful cities, including the colonial Guanajuato.

Last year’s class of students was so moved by a visit to a poor neighborhood in Guadalajara marked by the stench from a sewage-filled river that they left wondering how they could help. This year’s course was extended to enable students to undertake a public health project in that very neighborhood.

“Students asked, ‘How can we look at this and not do anything?’” says Garcia. “Whether they give a health fair at a local church or offer educational programming, this year’s students are prepared to help.”

Texas MBA Team Takes on Top Schools in CNBC Game Show

It is well known that the high-pressure world of business awaits graduating MBAs from the McCombs School of Business. For six students, however, that type of pressure—having to think quickly and act decisively on matters of business—came a year early this summer.

Texas MBA team on CNBC's 'Fast Money MBA Challenge'
The "Fast Money MBA Challenge," which quizzes players on general business, finance and stock market knowledge, will be broadcast for four consecutive Wednesday nights in August. The finale will air live from the NASDAQ in Times Square Aug. 22.

On a July weekend, Ben Jones, Tim Killgoar, Justin Sander and Chris Semain took leave from summer internships to fly to New York and take part in a business-themed game show at CNBC. Classmates Brad Gurasich and Ryan Nixon filled out the team as alternates.

The “Fast Money MBA Challenge” premiered Aug. 1, with Texas beating top-seeded MIT in the first round. In the second round, Texas knocked off Columbia and now faces Yale in the championship, which will air live from NASDAQ in New York Aug. 22 at 8 p.m. Austin local time on CNBC.

The team from Austin was happy with the overall experience.

“It was fantastic,” Killgoar said. “We enjoyed matching wits with students from other top business schools, and I believe we represented Texas well on a national stage.”

The other schools are NYU, Columbia, MIT, Yale, Chicago, UCLA and Dartmouth. The winning team will receive $200,000, to be split among all team members. The prize money must be used for tuition or other school-related expenses.

The future Texas MBAs said they enjoyed themselves so much because they were able to stay loose and just have fun.

“The six of us were able to find a lot of humor with the whole experience,” Killgoar said. “I think we were more relaxed than the other teams. That’s one of the things that attracted me to Texas for my MBA. I like the down-to-earth nature of my classmates, in addition to their intelligence.”

By Rob Meyer

Social Work Student Learns by Leaps and Bounds

Aeron Aanstoos wishes her new friend—the 500-pound and contagiously cheerful “Squirt”—could write a social work textbook.

Aeron Aanstoos with therapy dolphin Squirt
Aeron Aanstoos with her new friend, the 500-pound and contagiously cheerful “Squirt.”

Aannstoos spent the summer watching and learning how the therapy dolphin works with special needs children to improve motor skills, motivation and self-esteem while reducing loneliness and anxiety.

“Dolphins are extremely intelligent, gentle and sensitive,” she says, “and it doesn’t take long to see that with some kids, there is a special connection to the animals.”

Aanstoos graduates in August with a master’s degree from the School of Social Work and recently finished an internship at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Fla. The program is designed to assist children and adolescents with critical or terminal illnesses and emotional and physical challenges.

“I’m a big fan of the idea that whenever possible, therapy should be fun, playful and creative, especially when working with kids,” she says. “Children with special needs or illnesses don’t always have a lot of opportunities to just be kids, so I think many of them respond well to art and animals, which are just inherently fun.”

There have been studies, says Aanstoos, showing that just being around dolphins can affect mood and alleviate depression.

“But I don’t think you need a lot of research to tell you that,” she says. “Even kids who could not get in the water for medical reasons lit up when they were with the dolphins.”

Besides learning about the healing power of dolphins, Aanstoos says she was able to broaden her idea of what a social worker is and does.

“I could relax, be less self-conscious and take in the experience—one that I was so lucky to be able to share with the children, their families and the dolphins,” she says. “It was amazing to see the changes in children and their families even after a short time at Island Dolphin Care. This sense of joy and fun is something I hope to bring to my future practice.”

By Nancy Neff

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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